Funny Feeling about Chaos

Warren Frank Lamboy wfl1 at cornell.edu
Tue May 2 23:02:47 EST 1995

In article <3o6rjf$p4r at sifon.cc.mcgill.ca>, Graham Dellaire
<popa0206 at PO-Box.McGill.CA> wrote:

> I have a funny feeling that evolution should be approach
> with a heavy dose of chaos theory.  It definately has constraints
> on it (i.e. selection for traits that are beneficial etc and the whole
> survival of the fitest argument) but I can't help but think that there
> is a completely random element too.  I am always pleasantly surprised
> when I hear statements like, "Lemarck was right!" etc. because it lets
> us know that evolution and heredity is not so easily definable.  Lemarck's 
> giraffe inspired axiom (and later tested on poor mutilated mice) that an individual
>  could adapt to its environment and pass this on to its offspring was later 
> proved an actual possibility in some bacteria.  As well the evolution of modern
> man from his early mammalian ancestors, as far as we can tell, is far from a steady
> climb to our present state.  It is punctuated by vary rapid changes in physiology 
> which has spurred rabid searches for the "missing link" to maintain a tired paradigm
> held dear by too many anthropologists.  To many models have been developed around
> the sample size of one (read "Lucie").
> Just some musings
> any comments are welcome
> please post in this group or
> reply by E-mail popa0206 at po-box.mcgill.ca

I am delighted that someone has started a thread concerning randomness and
evolution and I'd like to follow up with some comments of my own.  It seems
to me that the evolution of any taxon (family, genus, species, etc.) is a
UNIQUE event in evolutionary history.  If this is so, then there may be
very few (no?) general principles to be discovered that can be used to
explain the origin of such taxa.  Oh sure, one can concoct a plausible
scenario about the evolution of a single species, but then when one tries
to apply it to another species, it fails.  I am convinced that there is so
much randomness involved in the determination of which organisms live and
which ones die, and which ones leave offspring and how many, that evolution
is unpredictable except over very short time periods (perhaps up to several
years).  When I allow myself to do freewheeling thinking about such things,
I even go so far as to say (to myself alone, and NEVER professionally),
that our "explanations" for the origin of particular species is only
story-telling.  Now, I like story-telling, because stories give me a way to
remember things easily, and to give a gloss of understanding to an
otherwise befuddling and mystifying world.  But what I don't like is people
telling me that I must tell my stories about the evolution of organisms
according to their rules, rather than my own.  For instance, I like stories
that "explain" the evolution of organisms in terms of geography,
catastrophes, colors, shapes, behavior, and morphological and biochemical
similarities, but I do not much like stories that tell me about evolution
in terms of Shared Derived Characters (just to pick a random example out of
the 'Stuff Warren Don't Like' hat).  In my opinion, the probability of the
stories we tell about the evolution of organisms being correct is so low,
that I wouldn't even bet the reader's life on any of them being right. This
applies to all such evolutionary stories, whether I like their actors,
plots, and character development or not.  Contemplating the evolution of
life on earth is an exciting and creative activity, and it is what induced
me to become a biologist, but I don't for a minute believe that the stories
I conjure up are anywhere close to the truth, no matter how many
statistically or phylogenetically significant results I can induce to hover
in the vicinity.  Remember:  "Ya cain't do stastistics, if they's only wun
uv 'em."

Please feel free to flame away--I gots me my asbestos suit on!

Warren F. Lamboy                            "It's easy if you know how to
Cornell University-Geneva Campus             do it, but it's impossible if
Geneva, NY                                   you don't know how to do it."
Warren_Lamboy at cornell.edu

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